I don't watch very much television, and since my children were born I have gotten out of the habit of going to see movies, once a source of deep joy in my life. That said, I have found myself riveted by a new series on HBO called True Detective, largely on the basis of the performance by Matthew McConaughey. Woody Harrelson is no slouch, and the writing and directing are top notch, but McConaughey is the center of True Detective's dark and haunting geography. Coupled with his work on the small-budget movie Mud, as well as his starring role in Dallas Buyers Club, a role in which he lost 50 pounds to approximate the ravages of AIDS in the era before effective medications, I think we've watched McConaughey transform himself from a pretty boy who takes on safe projects (such as the aptly named Dirk Pitt in the movie Sahara) to--one hopes--one of the great actors of his generation. I haven't yet seen Dallas Buyers Club but it's playing down the street and is on my To Do list; what I have seen of True Detective has shown me that McConaughey is a top-notch craftsman who is interested in telling stories about real people, not the cardboard cutouts so often dumped on us by Hollywood.
It's not the kind of oeuvre equal to that of Philip Seymour Hoffman's but it is one hell of a promising start. Yet Hoffman was only a touch older than McConaughey--about a year separates them--and his range was jaw-dropping. So many great actors, even DeNiro and Pacino at their height, settled into similar kinds of roles. There's a similarity in the lead characters of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, as there is in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Hoffman, though, was all over the place, just as happy to have a small role as the lead as long as it was interesting.
His masterpiece will be, of course, Capote, but when I think of the kind of genius Hoffman brought to a role, the movie Boogie Nights comes to mind. In particular, there's this scene in which Hoffman's character, Scotty J, finally utters a ham-handed confession of love to Mark Wahlberg's character, Dirk Diggler:
It takes barely a minute to see longing, humiliation, self-loathing, and a desperate hope that we as viewers know has no chance of being fulfilled. It is pathetic in the deepest sense of the word, and Hoffman simply inhabited this character for the duration of the scene; to inhabit it any longer would be unbearable. As A.O. Scott said in his remembrance today, "He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully."
That's what I think we lost with his passing.